Diana study

Babson Lab leaders create win-win for female founders

IN STRIDE: WIN Lab Boston Director Ashley Lucas and Global Director Heatherjean MacNeil are taking growth to a new level for the women-focused accelerator. (FoundersWire Photo)


BOSTON—The Babson College Women Innovating Now Lab (better known as the WIN Lab) has made its reputation incubating female founders and their businesses.

Now its leaders have taken a page from the growth strategies they teach and applied it to their own model.

“Our big vision is to be the No. 1 accelerator for women around the world,” says Heatherjean MacNeil, global director for the WIN Lab. “I think we’re very ambitious in terms of how we’re going to get there. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

In the course of a few months, MacNeil and her team of supporters, coaches and sponsors have executed some intricate plans, including christening Babson’s downtown campus at 100 High St., and expanding operations to its first remote campus in Miami.

Just last week, Boston’s 18 WIN-ners were whittled to a final three, with Own The Boardroom, Wanderful and LoveLeaf coming up in the money, pitching before a crowd of about 300 at The Atrium at the Davenport in Cambridge. Growth founder and CEO of ZappRX, Zoe Barry shared her message as keynote speaker, “Let’s get more XX in tech and more female founders funded.” Judges Smaiyra Million, David Chang, Sharon Kan and Patricia Forde made the final call for the cash. Million is one of the program’s entrepreneurs-in-residence. Chang, a local investor and growth advocate, was recently named the head of Babson’s summer venture program.

And a week before, Miami’s cohort celebrated its finals, with Zuke Music, Pierce Plan and Palmpress Coffee founders accepting prizes.

“Miami is the perfect ecosystem for us for a number of reasons. One, it’s emerging, so it’s raw, it’s early stage,” says MacNeil. “And there was a funder that recognized the need for a player to intervene early to create more of a gender-balanced entrepreneurial ecosystem. So it’s just been a great place for us to plant our roots and really become part of that movement of becoming.”

The Miami WIN Lab set up in the Cambridge Innovation Center, sited on University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park in Overtown, with Director Carolina Pina taking over the helm in February.

With so many companies applying to incubators and accelerators, deciding which ones to admit to the program is a challenge—but also a source of pride for the program’s supporters, she said. The WIN Lab’s mandate is to advance women entrepreneurs, so including companies at different stages and watching them develop becomes part of the value, where the women share the lessons they’ve learned with each other, stage to stage.

“It’s a little bit like the process of building an investment portfolio. We always have a nucleus of companies that we’re like, ‘Yeah, they’ll probably thrive. They check all the boxes.’ And then we grab our outliers, or we’ll meet an entrepreneur at that super-early stage, but you just want to sit and talk to them for five hours, because their passion is contagious and you believe in them as a human,” MacNeil says. “So we have a few of those. And some of them end up being our success stories, honestly. And then from a community perspective, we’re always looking for: What is that group dynamic going to look like and who will add value from that perspective, too—which I think makes us a little bit different.”

Boston director Ashley Lucas says the program has shifted in terms of the business stages they admit or “allocate seats to,” because the WIN Lab’s criteria differ from other accelerators. “We see a diverse group of people come into the program. And I think that Heatherjean has done an incredible job developing the curriculum so that you can lay it on top of an entrepreneur no matter where they are in the business.”

At every stage, female-led companies are still lacking support, the women (both former entrepreneurs themselves) say, despite a tide of evidence that women on teams create consistently successful growth patterns.

“There have been a series of wakeup calls, both from a gender and a minority perspective. The Diana Project run through Babson looked at women in relation to venture capital. There’s a phenomenon that’s happened, where suddenly the data is forcing people to look at the fact that only 2.7 percent of women founders raise venture capital, and that stat hasn’t changed in 10 years,” MacNeil says. “You can’t turn a blind eye to that. It’s so glaring.”

But it’s not as simple as getting investors to write checks to women. The history of entrepreneurship comes with a generations of subconscious bias—from how a woman presents, down to what kind of business she even chooses to build.

“We’re trying to solve it but we’re perpetuating it. And I think we’re very self-effacing about that,” Lucas says. “We’re really trying to figure out how to be gender-balanced in everything that we do so that we’re creating the right optic and creating the right setting that brings justice to the founders that we’re trying to serve, too. Because in many ways, it’s still a man’s world.”

She says the WIN Lab exists in a silo where men and women alike contribute to the program as investors and experts. “But they’re all coming from the perspective of, ‘I’ve been successful. I’ve lived the barriers. I see the barriers and I want to give back.’ And so we’re really good at curating a community of people that get the WIN Lab value proposition. They love working with our founders.”

As the WIN Lab continues to grow, eyeing the Asian market and a few others for expansion, they will continue to champion the women who attempt to conquer the innovation economy on the home front and abroad.

“We still need to figure out how to change the mind-set, change the behavior of the VCs, of the seed investors, of the power holders,” Lucas says. “And simultaneously, we’re trying to train women founders to walk into a room and understand where to go to build relationship capital, how to pitch, how to feel comfortable—which is the role of WIN Lab—and bringing those parties together to seek real change.

“I think those two things are still happening in silos, and so I think our work is really trying to figure out how to educate both sides, but educate them together so that there’s real change happening.”

The Boston WIN Lab program is open to Babson undergrad and graduate students and alumni. In partnership with the City of Boston’s Women on Main initiative, the program also offers five tuition-free fellowships to Boston-based entrepreneurs. The Miami program is available to any female entrepreneur from that region.

Boston and Miami are now accepting applications for their next cohorts. If you are a female entrepreneur in either of these communities that meets the criteria, apply HERE.